After Hannibal

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The workings of history and the ambiguities of justice have been fruitful themes for author Barry Unsworth. In AFTER HANNIBAL, the characters’ relationships with Italian history imply that all human endeavors are useless, “the same destiny await[s] all human habitations.” In the legal practice of the oracular lawyer Signor Mancini, the novel’s pivotal character whom most of the other characters consult, even the law offers no real justice. However, to extract that bleak message from the fates of these characters, most of them victims of their own flaws—truculence, passivity, greed—seems unnecessarily pessimistic.

Part of the problem lies in the large number of characters who inhabit this little world. With a dozen major characters, the novel scarcely provides space for the drawing to be deep. As a result, the reader never feels an intimate understanding of the characters’ motives. A related problem is that some of the characters are presented with broad satire while others are drawn seriously. The reader must move from comic descriptions of one household’s sexual antics directly to the serious treatment of world history. These mixed modes add to the novel’s thematic fogginess.

AFTER HANNIBAL demonstrates Unsworth’s passion for history as well as his love for the landscapes of Italy, and its plot cleverly interrelates the fates of the diverse people who live along one small access road. Nevertheless, its mixed modes and its lack of thematic clarity make it less artistically successful than Unsworth’s previous novels SACRED HUNGER (1992) or MORALITY PLAY (1995).

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, February 1, 1997, p. 927.

Chicago Tribune. March 9, 1997, XIV, p. 4.

Library Journal. CXXII, February 1, 1997, p. 108.

London Review of Books. XVIII, December 12, 1996, p. 28.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 9, 1997, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 9, 1997, p. 30.

The New Yorker. LXXIII, June 2, 1997, p. 89.

The Observer. September 1, 1996, p. 15.

The Spectator. CCLXXVII, August 24, 1996, p. 23.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 30, 1996, p. 24.

The Wall Street Journal. February 25, 1997, p. A20.

After Hannibal

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When, two hundred years before the common era, Hannibal and his troops ambushed the Roman army on the shores of Lake Trasimeno, they took advantage of the natural circumstances of the marsh and mists through which the Romans were marching. Other sorts of warfare have also been practiced in and around Perugia. After Hannibal, the city was ruled first by Biordo Michelotti, who, perhaps betrayed by his newlywed wife, was murdered by members of a rival family, the Guidalotti (assisted by Pope Boniface). The Guidalotti were followed by the even more powerful and brutal Baglioni family, who safeguarded their supremacy by controlling the city’s land.

Professor Monti’s academic interest in the bloody history of power politics in medieval Italy supplies the reader with the history which forms the background of After Hannibal. The events of the novel ask the reader to keep that bloody history in mind as Unsworth plays out his characters’ own battles for love and land. Of the two issues, love occupies fewer characters. Professor Monti feels betrayed by his wife’s sudden decision to leave him for another man. Deeply absorbed in his historical studies, Monti was unaware of any causes for his wife’s unhappiness, and now he feels paralyzed by her absence. He withdraws into himself, teaching his classes but staying away from his university colleagues for fear they will sense what is wrong.

Monti’s neighbor, Fabio, has been similarly betrayed by his lover, Arturo. Like Monti, Fabio was blind to his lover’s unhappiness. He imagined that the younger man was grateful to him for taking him from the slums into a life of comparative ease. Instead, Arturo’s belief that Fabio rules their household tyrannically and that he himself is unappreciated has led him not only to abandon his lover but also to set a legal trap that will strip Fabio of the house and land he has spent his life’s savings to possess.

Land is significant here. Monti and Fabio and all the other characters of the novel live along the same small, private road. It has no outlet; it serves only to give the residents access to their land, and they must maintain it. The road’s only “native” inhabitants are the Checchetti, a peasant family—father, daughter, and son-in-law. Apparently motivated by greed, they initiate a conflict over the road by claiming that, during work on the Chapmans’ house, heavy traffic weakened their property’s wall. Harold Chapman, crass and bullying, is not the sort of person to give in quietly to demands for money; he begins a series of countermeasures which escalates the conflict. At last he consults Signor Mancini, the lawyer who becomes a focus for the various conflicts in which many of the road’s other residents find themselves.

Harold Chapman’s problems, however, do not lie in land alone. While the road dispute escalates, his marriage is dissolving, a fact which he begins to recognize without regret. He has come to despise his wife’s sympathy for Italy: its art, its architecture, and its natives. He spends all his energies trying to enlist his neighbors in his legal battles against the Checchetti family, who are meanwhile using their own wiles to attempt to close off the road.

Another sort of battle for land is also being waged on the road at the home of the Greens, who have recently retired to Italy from the United States. They have purchased a villa which represents for them all that they love about their adopted country. They especially love Umbria, an area rich in the early Renaissance art for which the Greens share a passion. Yet living in Italy has its drawbacks: The Greens have not been able to find satisfactory workmen to renovate their villa, and thus they fall into the grasp of Stan Blemish, who offers to serve as their “project manager.” Blemish, who has lost his job in the English civil service for taking bribes, now makes his living by bilking people like the Greens. Working with a dishonest contractor, Blemish carefully gauges the amount of money he can wring from his victims while the contractor undertakes a number of needless and destructive measures which are supposed to protect the house from earthquakes. The projects, largely uncompleted, leave the house less and less habitable until the Greens’ growing fears cause them to consult the lawyer Mancini.

The rapacious Blemish has plans of his own. He and his wife Milly intend to open a medieval-style restaurant, the plans for which grow ever more elaborate and tasteless...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)